A response to Scofield-Handler on Eckhart Tolle

July 9, 2012 in buddhism, dharma, social action by seanfeit

I’m grateful, Marisa, for your warm and lucid response to Be Scofield’s article on Eckhart Tolle. You emphasize the balance of inner and outer work well, without favoring one over the other. In reading Scofield’s essay, what I would like to add to the mix is a recognition of a fundamental error in Tolle’s work as Scofield presents it. (I am not a student of Tolle’s writing myself, so can’t speak about his practice from the inside. I read it from my base in our shared tradition of Theravada Buddhism.)

The issue that Scofield is right to highlight is a disconnect between Tolle’s story of the material/social result of profound inner transformation. Why indeed should enlightenment of any kind lead inevitably to a progressive social politics or activism? You’re right to emphasize that the difference between progressive and conservative ideology seems to be a focus on interconnection. Progressive policies tend to take more care of others (or say that they want to, anyway). If indeed it is the case that awakening automatically increases compassion (as some traditions claim), then people should become more progressive as they enlighten. But it’s not so simple, and the example of an evangelical missionary is a good one: lots of care and concern for the Other, but perhaps a narrow vision about how to help, and often a conservative moral stance.

The doctrinal error that Tolle inhabits and that Scofield also doesn’t quite tease out is described by the Mahayana Buddhist teaching of the Two Truths: that reality simultaneously manifests in personal and universal forms, called Relative and Absolute, though even those labels can misleadingly seem like they’re a hierarchy, with one deeper than the other. Confusing the manifestations of one of these (like the deep impersonality that Tolle’s awakening revealed to him) with manifestations of the other (like social positions, beliefs, and activism) is a bit apples and oranges. They’re just two different ways of engaging reality.

Through the lens of the Absolute, global warming, injustice, racism, homophobia, etc. Really Don’t Matter! The universe is way huger and more subtle than those concerns, and when a practitioner is deep in meditation, untangling the fundamental strands of consciousness and the universe, dissolving the self, relative politics is the furthest thing from important. However – and this is a big however – these experiences must not be taken as solutions for relative social ills. Relative ills – and again, relative doesn’t mean lesser, it just means that they exist in the realm of relationship, where self and other DO exist – require relative solutions. Social ills require social solutions. And the Relative world matters. Deeply.

It is very tempting, when we’ve had a profound experience, to think that if everyone could just know what we now know, so many problems would be fixed. I remember driving over the GG Bridge after 2 months of retreat, sobbing, recognizing that all the people in all the cars and all through the city were racing around trying to find happiness, and doing all sorts of things that could never bring happiness. I was in touch with the depths of my own suffering and that of others, and that understanding helps to motivate my work in the world. But do I think that long meditation retreat is the best medicine for our whole society? No. (Ok, I sort-of do, but I don’t hold the fantasy that it’s going to happen.) It’s not the medicine that most of our society is available for. Only a few people will ever have experiences like Tolle’s. The question isn’t about how those experiences will change the world, but what millions of us, still imperfect, half-awakened at best, choose to do in Relative reality – in relationship with others – for the good of the whole. The thing Tolle omits is how messy this is. Absolute reality is so clean and… absolute! So it leads too easily into making grand pronouncements about transformation.

I know a Buddhist monk who, when asked about how to bring spiritual practice into romantic relationship, answered (appropriately) that as a celibate monastic he wasn’t qualified to answer the question because he didn’t have experience doing so. Tolle can teach people how to access the Absolute because that’s where his experience lies. For a teacher of social transformation I would send folks to a guru of the Relative. Maybe a boxed set of “The Power of Now” paired with Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” is good medicine that touches both realms.

May we all be well. Sí, se puede!